America's curious concept of freedom

Californians now seem to think that smoking is more dangerous than owning firearms, writes John Carlin
ABOUT an hour and a half north of San Francisco, in the heart of California's wine country, lies a chi-chi little town called St Helena, and tucked between the high-fashion boutiques and gourmet restaurants on Main Street there is a Mexican joint called Ana's Cantina. The tablecloths are plastic, the food is heavy and the music is loud.

Wander in any time of the day or night and the chances are that at the bar you will encounter a bunch of horny-handed good ole' boys staring absently into their beer. One might be a tractor driver, possibly an employee at Francis Ford Coppola's vineyard near by; or a garage repairman; or a tattooed and pony-tailed veteran of the Vietnam war. In a corner you might see two or three Guadalajaran grape-pickers going quietly blotto.

Nothing wrong with this scene. No surprise that these chaps should duck in for a breather from Donna Karan, and Ermenegildo Zegna, and restaurants that serve cod with pancetta-braised savoy cabbage and Asian pears. No surprise at all.

But look more closely, whiff the air, and after a while it dawns on you that something is missing. Something that ordinarily is to bars like Ana's Cantina as rice is to curry. Tobacco smoke. Then step outside, at any time of the day or night, and you will see one of the good ole' boys hunched furtively over a cigarette, as if hiding a base habit from the healthy, affluent, conspicuously showered tourists up from Silicon Valley for a day's recreational shopping.

Talk to one of these smokers and you hear something like this. "I fought for this country. I fought for freedom. And now this! It's time to leave California. Maybe it's time to leave the United States..."

Much muttering has greeted California's new law, introduced on 1 January, banning smoking in bars. Much bitterness, but no rebellion. Sure, some smokers will occasionally summon up the Dutch courage to flout the law. Late into the night some bars may turn a blind eye to offenders. But no one's marching on the streets. No one seems to believe that there's a serious cause to be fought. No one seems to have grasped that what is going on is not only a trampling of individual freedom, but the outbreak of an out-and-out war on the working class.

A recent report by Washington's Brookings think-tank noted that "cigarette smokers tend to be poorer and more likely to be blue-collar workers than the average American". Ana's Cantina, dense with smoke until the lights went out on New Year's Day, is a case in point. Observe the huddled masses puffing on cigarettes outside airport terminals and office buildings all over the US, come rain or snow, and you will see from their dress and demeanour that they invariably inhabit the rustier links in the American food chain.

Some 48 million Americans smoke, 5 million more - as the Financial Times noted last year - than voted for Bill Clinton in the last presidential election. The problem, however, is that the less well-off are precisely the people who do not bother to vote. Politicians ignore the rights of smokers as blithely as they do those of another group of non-voters, teenagers, who now face jail for cigarette possession. A report in the New York Times last month informed us that: "Over the past year, states like Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas have passed laws that could result in stiff penalties for minors who try to buy or possess cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Those convicted of such offences could lose their driver's licenses, face fines of up to $1,000 [pounds 625] or even be imprisoned for up to six months."

Love that bit about losing their driver's licenses. Teenagers are deemed fit by society to be at the controls of a machine capable of killing and maiming, but if they blow a puff of tobacco smoke into the cold night air, by golly, they're going to wish they hadn't been born.

Nor should they imagine for a moment that the authorities are going to be fooled. In a town called Gothenburg, in Nebraska, a special detachment of undercover police officers armed with hidden surveillance cameras make it their business to stake out areas where high school students congregate to smoke.

In a high school in Indiana an 18-year-old student was banned from playing an American football game after a random drug test detected nicotine traces in his blood. The very same student would be entitled not only to drive, but to vote, get married, bring up children, join the army and learn how to kill people for a living.

Or he could just buy a gun and kill people for sport. Scientific reports about the risks of passive smoking provide conflicting evidence, but it is an irrefutable fact that the homicide rate in the US is 10 times higher than in Western Europe. The glaringly obvious reason for this disparity is that, in the US, the same legal codes that prohibit smoking positively encourage citizens to acquire firearms.

In December, in a bizarre and appalling case in Kentucky, a 14-year- old schoolboy opened fire on his classmates, killing three and wounding four. He said later he had no idea why he had done it. It was a moment of madness, a rush of blood to the head. But if guns were not so freely available in America, and the right to bear arms was not enshrined in an archaic clause in the Constitution that no one has seen fit to repeal in 200 years, the lad's expression of adolescent imbecility might have consisted of something less lethal, more harmlessly rebellious. Like lighting up a cigarette.

Where is the consistency? Different political leaders, guided by different prejudices and whims, might equally decide that chocolate should be declared unlawful because it can cause diabetes or, as a consequence of obesity, heart disease; that baked beans should be taken off the shelves because they can expose innocent bystanders to the noxious risks of passive flatulence.

There are lots of people in the world who believe it is wrong to eat pork. That is their personal religious choice. The present danger in the US is that commandments governing private lives are imposed on everyone by law, irrespective of personal beliefs, not to mention those principles of individual freedom that the tyrannical American majority so treasures, and in which - irritatingly and ad nauseam - it takes so much pride.